For the week of April 28, 1999  thru May 4, 1999  

Retiring school superintendent reflects on his days at school

Challenged by change, Phil Homer leaves behind a kinder, gentler education


By HANS IBOLD
Express Staff Writer

Blaine County School superintendent Phil Homer (right) offers commentary to fellow sports fan Ed Uhrig at a Carey High School football game last fall. It was important to him to take part in school events.

On Thursday morning, Blaine County School District superintendent Phil Homer sat motionless at his uncluttered desk, looking uneasily at the only stack of papers before him.

The papers, ominously marked "Crisis Management," seemed to glare back at the superintendent.

In June, Homer will step down as superintendent, a post he has held for 11 years, and the last thing he wants to manage in his district right now is a crisis like one dealt to the Columbine High School community in Littleton, Colo. last week.

"We’re very concerned about the possibility of a copycat," Homer said. "You have to be on alert and prepared. And even with the best preparations, you have to keep your fingers crossed. No one is immune."

Those concerns aside, the outgoing superintendent is right now riding high.

For the first time in his career, Homer is most of the time wearing a mission-accomplished smile.

Some hallmark achievements stand out in his tenure—the Silver Creek Alternative School, the Blaine County Education Foundation and the new Wood River Middle School—but Homer is most proud that his overall vision is being realized.

"Over a period of several years, we’re finally getting to the point that I wanted us to be," Homer said. "It’s a perfect time for me to walk away and let Jim Lewis have an opportunity to take my vision to whatever the next step might be. It couldn’t be better for me."

Homer’s career as an educator began 37 years ago when he was a teacher in Soda Springs, Idaho, but his vision began to take shape in 1966 when he moved to Blaine County and quickly ascended to principal of the high school.

Then, under the mentorship of his friend and superintendent Dick Jones, Homer started thinking more broadly about improving education district-wide.

When Jones died of a heart attack in 1984, Homer was asked to replace his mentor and friend.

Homer accepted and immediately went to work on a $6-million plant facilities levy to build classrooms at each school in the district, which passed successfully.

When his wife required hospitalization for a life-threatening health condition, Homer stepped down. After taking some time off to be with her and after a brief stint as principal of Wood River High School, Homer was asked again to become superintendent, which he did.

At that time, the student population was skyrocketing and classrooms were burgeoning.

Homer initiated a new building plan, out of which came the idea for the Wood River Middle School.

"A new philosophy went hand in hand with the new building," Homer said. "The middle school was designed to be a little more elementary-oriented, a little more caring, a little more kind. There is a lot of team work, lots of interdisciplinary studies, and an advisory group where kids can connect with faculty member and always have someone that they can go to."

Homer likes to call the middle school a "kinder, gentler school."

After a brief struggle and a bond issue that went from $12.5 million to $16.5 million, Homer won support and was able to build the middle school and remodel and expand other schools in the district.

Homer becomes visibly proud when he talks about the middle school.

"It’s our flagship," he said.

Then, Homer shifted his focus from facility improvements to systemic change.

"I just felt we needed some kind of system to get us in a mode where change was possible and intentional, but we weren’t there," Homer said. "I didn’t think we had a system in place to improve the learning of our children on an ongoing basis. We were resting on our laurels a little bit."

Homer established teams of teachers and principals who continually reviewed academic research and tried to apply findings in the district.

The goal was to establish a core curriculum and assessment tools to measure student progress.

"We asked ourselves ‘What do we want students to know?’ and ‘Are we getting what we want?’" Homer said. "If there was a gap there, we would focus on it and try to close that gap."

An example of that systemic change working is the Lindamood Bell program, an interactive and integrated approach to reading.

Because reading levels were disappointingly low, the district brought in Lindamood reading specialists, who generated immediate results.

"We saw a gap there, and now we’re closing it," Homer said.

Perhaps as a result of systemic changes, student test scores in all disciplines have been improving by about 8 percent for the past three years.

"Most importantly, we have a process in place to continually help us improve," Homer said.

A new building program and systemic changes do not come without a price, and while Homer’s district might be the envy of other Idaho superintendents in terms of its high property value, he has still needed to fight battles in the Idaho Legislature to secure funding for Blaine County.

"If you’re wealthy property-wise, then the state says you can take better care of your kids on your own dime," Homer said. "We have an edge with the market value that we have in Blaine County, but the cost of living is a little greater than it is anywhere else."

Homer, as chairman of Idaho’s Superintendents Finance Committee, spent three years at the Legislature establishing a permanent levy that has secured state funding for Blaine County at about 20 percent and local funding at 80 percent.

When asked what advice he might have for his successor Jim Lewis, Homer was given pause.

"I’ve never really considered myself to be one of those really heavy thinker, bright guys along the way," Homer said.

With some prying, Homer emphasized the importance of being attentive to the community.

"I’ve gotten along in this community because I’ve been kind and I’ve been caring and I love people and kids," he said. "Therefore I’m out and visible and listening to what people have to say."

Homer said he rarely missed school events and that his presence at such events often surprised parents.

"It’s important to be out among the people in the community and to listen to what they have to say, and Jim knows that," Homer said. "Hire good people around you, and then it all falls into place. That gets you through the rough spots."

One of those rough spots is the ongoing drug testing debate, which the district is currently evaluating.

"I don’t know where we’re going to end up with the drug testing policy," Homer said. "Whether we’ll get to drug testing for next year remains to be seen. I want to make sure that when we move into that arena that we’ve gathered enough data that we can say it’s necessary. I’m very cautious on this issue."

Most of the rough spots, though, have been smoothed out during Homer’s tenure. His district is the envy of the state, and not just because of the market value.

"If other superintendents and other educators across the state envy me, they envy me because of the support we get from our community," Homer said. "Parents demand that you give their kids the best education that’s possible, and rightfully so. But they’re also willing to pay for it and willing to give you whatever support you need to make it work. And, boy, that’s a powerful thing."

Though he looks forward to spending more time with his wife, children and grandchildren—and doing a little fly-fishing—it will be difficult for Homer to step down.

"I’ll be extremely sad," Homer said. "It will be hard to step away, and it won’t be without tears."

 

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